The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I had previously read two stories (novellas, really) in this volume: "The Great God Pan" and "The White People". I liked those stores and was excited to re-read them. And Machen's reputation among horror aficionados whose opinions I appreciate and respect, especially those who favor a more literary style (as I do), gave me confidence that I might enjoy the remaining stories. I seem to recall that Lovecraft lauded Machen's work, as did Stephen King. Those were good indicators from two pretty good writers, as well.
But as I read The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories, an unanticipated question kept percolating up in my thoughts: When you say "Machen is a great writer," who do you mean? Yes, "Arthur Machen" is the obvious answer. But which one? Which Machen are you referring to? The Arthur Conan Doyle-like page turner of “The Red Hand” (which I wanted to keep calling "The Red Right Hand" - thank you very much, Nick Cave), the writer of “The Monstrance” with powerful echos of M.R. James, the Charles Dickensanian “The Tree of Life,” or the Dunsanian visions of “N”?
Machen is all of these, but with something more, something unique – a subtlety of hand and a careful movement of plot, sweetly lead by his studied use and manipulation of Word and Phrase. I capitalize these, because in Machen’s hands, these elements, these tools, are elevated beyond the banal usage of the terms. They become something special and “new” under his pen (though when one reads his strange mutation of certain terms, one is compelled to say “of course, why did I ever think of this word/phrase in any other way? In any case, I shall never think of it in the same way again!”
For instance, there is this from "The Three Imposters":
". . . I too burned with the lust of the chase, not pausing to consider that I knew not what we were to unshadow."
This is the sort of turn-of-phrase that I love in Machen. And that word: "unshadow," so evocative and full of implication. Given the context of a Russian-doll series of narratives within narratives, the term is especially apropos and lends a certain gravity to the meta-narrative from within the narrative - the meta-narrative "in the shadows" beyond the reader and the explicit words on the page. With one word, Machen pushes us out into the unknown; a sort of literary practical joke aimed at the careful reader.
And these stories do deserve a careful reading. They are not shocking in that Lovecraftian "the entire universe wants to eat us all, oh no, my poor sanity!" way. They are most definitely not the antinatalist murky depths of Thomas Ligotti (though there is a good deal of existentialism throughout these works). They are much more subtle. More careful and deliberate.
But that does not mean they are "straightforward". Far from it! I believe that "The Great God Pan" benefits from what seems like disorganization of thought. Vagaries and jagged connection points lead the reader on a frenetic, dreadful path, allowing each individual to come to their own conclusions, their own "end plot". "The Three Imposters" is mind-blowingly complex. Wheels within wheels, all shot through with decadence and hauntings and rotting bodies and tentacles. It works not because Machen ties off all the ends in a neat little bundle (he does not), but because the readers mind takes the disparate directions and waypoints and makes its own blurred map of what might have happened in the tale. I loved "The White People," but to tell you what it was "about"? Um. No. It's essentially plotless, a labyrinthine meandering through the eyes of a young girl discovering . . . well, she can't tell you all that she's discovered. It's simply not possible. Machen does a wonderful job of using inference and redaction to tease the reader with an intentionally occulted (I use the word exactly) vision of what lies beyond, accessible, but hidden.
You will exit many of these stories in a state of utter confusion, wondering what just hit your brain. But you will feel the impact of something sinister hiding in the veins of the earth or just beyond that hill ahead or in the complex motivations of the seemingly innocent. These stories are insidious!
Even in stories where there is a "traditional" twist ending, there is something in the subtle way that Machen lays his tales out that allows for a "twist" ending that isn't a cheap-shot, like I find in many short stories (especially those written by less-experienced authors). "Ritual," for example, is no exception. It's microfiction, or close to it, so it relies on a twist at the end, but by the time you get there, you're like a frog that's been slowly brought to boil in horror. Your realization comes too late! And even after the twist is revealed, your brain will continue tumbling forward, making suppositions and venturing guesses as to what really happened.
This is what Machen provides, then: a labyrinthine path to uncertainty and, hence, insecurity, where the only thing you are sure of is that you can't trust anything to be what it seems. There is darkness, horror, wonder, and awe, all combined, in this realization; a case study in Schopenhauer's philosophy of Aesthetics and The Sublime. It is a journey worth your while, all the way to the bitter, beautiful end.
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